Leda and The Swan

A Poem by William Butler Yeats

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Statue of Leda and the Swan in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvanian

 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

 

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

 

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Analysis

In this poem, W. B. Yeats tell the story of Leda and the Swan from Greek Mythology. The rape of the girl Leda by the god Zeus, who has taken the form of a swan.

Leda felt a sudden blow with the wings of the swan still beating above her. Her thighs were caressed by the dark webs of the swan’s feet. The nape of her neck was caught in his bill. He held her helpless breast upon his breast. How, Yeats asks, can Leda’s terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory of the swan from between her thighs? And, how can her body help but feel the strange heart beating where it lies? A shudder in the loins engenders the broken wall, the burning roof, and tower, and Agamemnon dead. The speaker wonders whether Leda, caught up by the swan and mastered by the brute blood of the air assumed his knowledge as well as his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop.

The poem is about a moment in time which ended the mythological age and began the modern era with the fall of Troy. This poem is a sonnet which is a 14 line poem in iambic pentameter.  The structure is Petrarchan. The Rhyme scheme is ABAB, CDCD, EFG, EFG.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus raped Leda who was married to King Tyndareus of Sparta. After the rape she slept with her husband. Subsequently she laid two eggs from which she hatched two set of twins: Helen and Pollux who were the children of Zeus and Castor and Clytemnestra who were the children of Tyndareus. This event, with the abduction of Helen, eventually brought about the Trojan War (the broken wall, the burning tower/ and Agamemnon dead). After the war, when King Agamemnon returned, Clytemnestra had her husband killed. According to Yeats’ interpretation, the lasting impact of the war was that it brought an end to the mythological era and gave birth to modern history.

 

 

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